One of Conductor Manfred Honeck’s Favorite Quotes Might Change the Way You Think About Classical Music

By Michael San Gabino |

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Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. (Photo: Kai Bienert)

Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck has led many orchestras around the world, especially throughout Europe and the United States. A former violist with the Vienna Philharmonic, Honeck will celebrate his tenth season as the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. His performing and conducting experiences have given him a unique view of tradition in classical music.

While Honeck intends to preserve classical traditions, the maestro does not want to make the concert hall a museum. “I love a quote from Gustav Mahler when it comes to tradition,” Honeck said in a recent interview. “Mahler said, ‘Tradition is the conservation of the fire and not the adoration of the ashes.’”

Honeck continued, “I think it’s a wonderful quote that I have to remind myself of and also young people. Keep the fire, keep the tradition—and be as perfect and professional as possible—but be curious to find new things.”

Finding new things in the classical canon informs a lot of Honeck’s programming, even with a familiar composer like Mozart. “I want to bring his lesser known pieces to life,” Honeck said, referring to his upcoming performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Instead of “adoring the ashes,” or featuring only the warhorses, Honeck views Mozart’s over 600 compositions as a realm of possibilities. “I thought, ‘Let’s find some pieces that illustrate the life of Mozart.’ We start with Exsultate, Jubilate, which was composed in 1773 when Mozart was just 17 years old. And we include his last piano concerto, No. 27, which was composed in 1791. In my opinion, it’s not played often, like the Piano Concerto No. 20.”

Honeck not only considers programming in the context of tradition but also in the orchestral sound itself. “One thing I’ve realized is that there is a globalization of interpretation and sound. I personally would support the idea that you should have a personal view of the music,” Honeck said.

In other words, “Don’t lose your personality. There’s a tendency to do things ‘just because,’ or because you might not be well regarded. That has an effect. We lose the personality in the music making, and that’s the most important part.”

According to Honeck, having your own musical voice might not always be accepted. “Be prepared to fight when you believe in something, even when others think it’s not right,” he insisted. “Don’t just go along with the mainstream. We have to be ourselves.

“When you look at a Monet painting, you can identify him immediately. And when you listen to the radio, you have to think, ‘Oh, this has to be this conductor.’ Keep your own way of doing things. You are exceptional, so to say.”